I was coming home from an appointment this week on my commuter bike and had just topped a short, steep hill that I had to ride out of the saddle. I knew I was getting a great workout from the depth of my breathing and the beating of my heart. Then, as I shifted gears and picked up speed, I felt a fast-moving, mechanical-sounding whoosh coming past me.
I thought it might be a Prius in its electric-mode or a low-powered motor scooter. But, no, it was a middle-aged woman wearing thick pants and a heavy windbreaker, pedaling a massive gear at about 40 rpm. She quickly left me in her wake, moving at a steady 30 mph. Yes, she was riding an e-bike, but from the strength of her pedal stroke, and from what I imagined the intensity with which she’d just climbed that hill, she was getting a good workout too.
Until that moment, I had mixed feelings about electric bicycles. I’d first seen them several years ago in New York City, where the deliverymen for Chinese restaurants had converted from plodding along on mountain bikes (often riding the wrong way down one-way streets) to riding these heavy, electric-assisted bikes that they rarely seemed to pedal. Clearly, they were more efficient, but the greater speeds they were moving at, and the silence of their locomotion, also increased the likelihood of bicycle-pedestrian collisions.
I got a different perspective during a trip to Switzerland a couple of years ago. More than 50 percent of the models displayed outside bike stores were e-bikes; and looking at the cyclists riding on the bike paths and city streets, it was clear that a growing number of Swiss were riding those e-bikes, mostly for errands. I didn’t really see how these heavy (mostly 50 pounds and above) machines could provide a fitness benefit because people were using then to avoid pedaling.
But I have a different take after I was passed the other day by that bundled-up woman using the pedals to augment the electric motor and move at such a speed. As she disappeared into the distance, I immediately thought of slow-pedaling, flat-footed derny-riders moving at 40 mph around six-day velodromes pacing top track racers in exciting, full-bore motor-paced events.
It’s clear that e-bikes are becoming more popular, though Boulder-based Pike Research estimates that fewer than 90,000 will be sold in the U.S. this year. That’s a tiny fraction of the numbers in Asia and Europe. It’s estimated that more than 20 million e-bikes are sold every year in China, while about one million European are riding them. It’s predicted that annual U.S. sales will top a quarter-million by 2018—but that number could increase if battery technology improves enough for manufacturers to make e-bike lighter and less cumbersome, and increase their range to more than the current 20-mile average.
Mainstream manufacturers such as BMC, Cannondale, Giant, Specialized and Trek all produce e-bikes, and some are sold through their American dealers. Boulder even has a bike shop that sells only e-bikes! E-bikes are not much different in price from regular bikes, low-end models selling at around $1,000 with top-end machines as much as $10,000 or higher.
One obstacle to beginners (or those who haven’t ridden a bike for a long time) is that most U.S. cities do not allow e-bike riders on multi-use or bike paths, which seems like an unnecessary deterrent. Bike paths often have a 20-mph speed limit—which is the average top speed of e-bikes, unless you choose to push the highest gear real hard! There is a potential danger for pedestrians from speeding e-bikers (or even regular cyclists!), but overcrowded bike paths slow everyone down, and we all have to be careful.
To date, the major use for e-bikes is as a means of transportation or commuting, but as they become lighter and more efficient their recreational use is bound to increase. E-bikes can definitely make cycling easier for people not used to riding or those who are getting on in age and need a little boost to make riding more pleasurable. That was made abundantly clear in a recent story posted on American bike racer Amber Pierce’s blog (here’s the link: http://triplecrankset.com/2012/10/sharing-the-bike-love-part-ii/), written by her mother after the two took a 20-mile ride, with 1,000 feet of elevation gain, on e-bikes at Pierce’s European racing base of Graz, Austria.
Her mom hadn’t ridden a bicycle for many years, and was having trouble staying upright on the heavy e-bike…until she started using the motor. This is what she then wrote: “Once I turned it on I didn't turn it off (except for a few times) and I figured out how to use the throttle to help me get going from a dead stop and to give my legs just the lift they needed. Wow! What a difference! The motor does not engage unless you are pedaling, so it is not like a motorcycle; you still have to contribute, but it makes the whole process so much easier and so pleasurable. Then, when you do come to a steep hill there is a ‘max’ button to give you a little more help just when you need it most. I highly recommend e-bikes!”
By making cycling easier and more accessible to more people, so they can enjoy the pleasures we take for granted, e-bikes may have a bigger future than we think. And I’ll just have to train a little harder to be able to chase back onto the back wheel of that speeding middle-age lady!
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You can follow John on twitter @johnwilcockson